Toni Morrison's most memorable quotes from her speeches, interviews, books

In a picture taken on March 22, 2013, students attend a reading by the author Toni Morrison at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.
In a picture taken on March 22, 2013, students attend a reading by the author Toni Morrison at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - Toni Morrison, the Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, died on Monday (Aug 5), leaving behind a powerful literary legacy.

Here are some of her most memorable comments on language, creativity, identity and other subjects, taken from her speeches, interviews and writing.

On writing:

"A writer's life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity." (The Source Of Self-Regard, 2019)

"We don't need any more writers as solitary heroes. We need a heroic writers' movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious." (What Moves At The Margin: Selected Non-fiction, 2008)

"I thought of myself as like the jazz musician - someone who practises and practises and practises in order to be able to invent and to make his art look effortless and graceful. I was always conscious of the constructed aspect of the writing process, and that art appears natural and elegant only as a result of constant practice and awareness of its formal structures. You must practise thrift in order to achieve that luxurious quality of wastefulness - that sense that you have enough to waste, that you are holding back - without actually wasting anything." (Toni Morrison, The Art Of Fiction, in The Paris Review, 1993)

"Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation." (Toni Morrison's Nobel lecture, 1993)

On identity:

"The very serious function of racism… is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn't shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary." (A Humanist View, a 1975 speech Morrison gave at Portland State University)

"I never asked (Leo) Tolstoy to write for me, a little coloured girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked (James) Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don't know why I should be asked to explain your life to you." (Conversations With Toni Morrison, 1994)

"We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives." (Nobel lecture, 1993)

"What I'm interested in is writing without the gaze, without the white gaze. In so many earlier books by African-American writers, particularly the men, I felt that they were not writing to me. But what interested me was the African-American experience throughout whichever time I spoke of. It was always about African-American culture and people - good, bad, indifferent, whatever - but that was, for me, the universe." (From Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah's 2015 profile of Morrison in The New York Times Magazine)


From her novels:

"Freeing yourself was one thing. Claiming ownership of that freed self was another." (Beloved, 1987)

"If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it." (Song Of Solomon, 1977)

"He has double eyes. Each one a different colour. A sad one that lets you look inside him, and a clear one that looks inside you." (Jazz, 1992)

"Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined." (Beloved, 1987)